Can we understand the Holocaust?

Issue: 168

Henry Maitles

A review of Enzo Traverso, Critique of Modern Barbarism: Essays on Fascism, Anti-semitism and the Use of History, IIRE (2019), £17.

Can Marxism help us to understand the Holocaust? Marxism is a body of theoretical and experiential understanding that tries to explain the rationality behind history. Yet the fusion of deep irrationalism and barbarism with slave labour, oppression and persecution involved in the Holocaust seems difficult to explain—even with Marxism’s substantial theoretical tools. Enzo Traverso has grappled with these issues over many years and produced a number of important works that have furthered our understanding immensely. Critique of Modern Barbarism, which brings a number of his key ideas together, is a useful starting point for new readers. It contains no new insights, instead restating the findings of books such as The End of Jewish Modernity and his pathbreaking Understanding the Nazi Genocide. Nevertheless, this new volume is a useful rephrasing and bringing together of his previous work, and that means it is very welcome.

Traverso reminds us that the horror of Auschwitz symbolised a final break with the idea, developed since the Enlightenment, that the progress of civilisation will lead inexorably to a better, more just world. Of course, the kidnap and murder of Africans during the slave trade, the Armenian Genocide of 1915-16 and numerous other genocides, atrocities and war crimes had already given some idea of humanity’s capacity for barbarity. In the early 20th century, Rosa Luxemburg had already famously talked of human development leading down two possible roads, socialism or barbarism. Nevertheless it was the mechanised destruction of European Jewry in the death camps that exposed the extraordinary human potential for savagery.

Marxism and the Holocaust

Critique of Modern Barbarism is nicely edited by Alex de Jong into three parts: interpreting history; debates; and the left and antisemitism.

The first part takes up debates about the uniqueness of the Holocaust and looks particularly at Marxism as a social theory that can explain the Holocaust. In a satisfying, albeit not new summary, Traverso deals succinctly with the theoretical arguments between the “intentionalists” and “functionalists”. The intentionalists argue that the Nazis had planned to physically destroy all Jews from the 1920s. The functionalists, on the other hand, argue that the invasion of Russia in 1941 was the trigger for a shift towards an exterminatory policy: it was then that the Nazis found themselves with millions of Jews that they were both able to exterminate and for whom they could see no other “solution”. Traverso claims, I think correctly, that there are kernels of truth in both approaches. Nazi ideology had genocidal intent from its inception and wanted to make Europe free of Jews. The expansion of Hitler’s empire into the Soviet Union gave them the impetus and capacity to carry through on these ideas. The Nazi’s policy evolved through the 1930s and during the war from one of forced emigration to extermination. Indeed, although many writers are either more or less intentionalist or functionalist, Traverso increases our understanding of the ideology of fascism by locating it in an era of imperialist war.1

Yet should we even try to explain the Holocaust and Auschwitz? Writers as diverse as Nobel leaurate Elie Wiesel and the Frankfurt School critical theorist Theodor Adorno agreed that it cannot be properly understood or analysed.2 According to this line of thought, the Holocaust is beyond any understanding, whatever tools and perspectives might be employed. Adorno goes as far as to say that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”.3 Nevertheless, I agree with Traverso that we must try to understand it. If the slogan “Never Again” is to mean anything, we have to have some idea of what it is that we do not want to happen again. A related point is the uniqueness of the Holocaust. It has even been argued that debating this uniqueness amounts to Holocaust denial.4 Traverso argues against this:

The best way to keep the memory of a genocide alive is not to deny the existence of others, nor to create a religious cult around it, discussing any comparison as a dangerous attempt at profanity.5

The uniqueness of the Holocaust lies in its reliance on scientific racism and the most modern bureaucratic and industrial capitalist techniques that were available. Auschwitz was “the largest human slaughterhouse”, as its longest serving commandant called it, and “assembly-line-style mass murder” as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum describes it.6 Primo Levi argues that:

Notwithstanding the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the shame of the Gulags, the useless and bloody Vietnam war, the Cambodian self-genocide, the ­desaparecidos of Argentina and the many atrocious and stupid wars we have seen since, the Nazi concentration camp system still remains a unicum, both in its extent and quality… Never were so many human lives extinguished in so short a time and with so lucid a combination of technological ingenuity, fanaticism and cruelty.7

This type of thinking has led some authors with very good insights to argue that modernity per se is the issue.8 Such theories have tried with some success to explain the Holocaust, but they are also limited because they do not properly identify the specifically capitalist relations that were involved. Traverso’s clarity on this point is welcome. So too is his recognition that the supposed “progress” of capitalist social development is not necessarily a precursor to socialism but can also open the road to barbarity.9

Marxism has tried to grapple with the issues of the Holocaust and Auschwitz through an understanding of the complex relationships between economics and politics that enabled an embattled capitalism to survive, and indeed on occasion, thrive. German capitalists—many of whom had no particular desire for the Nazis or for the genocide—created the conditions for the Nazi regime to rule in their interests. Despite this, they lost control of the political process and the Nazis increasingly behaved in ways that made important sections of German capital uneasy.

For the Nazis, their racial ideas were the cement that held together their cadre. This explains some of the seeming irrationalities of their genocide. For example, why on 6 June 1944, as the Allies were landing in Normandy and the Russians had launched a massive attack in the East, was the transfer of 400 Salonikan Jews to Auschwitz a key order from the German high command? Why, during massive labour shortages, was “trained” Jewish slave labour replaced by “untrained” labour, causing anger among some leading industrialists? This irrationality can only be understood if we see that the German ruling class needed the Nazis and the Nazis needed the Holocaust. Put crudely, the regime might go down to defeat, but in the process they would kill as many Jews as possible and thus achieve one of their core aims. Indeed, historian Lucy Dawidowicz argues that the Second World War contained within it what she called “a war against the Jews”.10 The primacy of Nazi ideology in the development of the Holocaust is critical to understanding that, even if economic pressures—for example, food shortages in the occupied Soviet Union or expropriation of Jewish property—may have helped motivate particular murder campaigns, the extermination of the Jews cannot be explained in purely economic terms. Raul Hilberg argues that, “in the preliminary phase” of the isolation and expropriation of the Jews, “financial gains, public or private, far outweighed expenses, but…in the killing phase receipts no longer balanced losses”.11 From the standpoint of the war effort, the Holocaust destroyed scarce skilled labour and diverted rolling stock from military purposes. Individual capitalist firms such as I G Farben did undoubtedly profit from Jewish slave labour and by supplying the means of extermination to the death camps. Yet however instrumentally rational the bureaucratic organisation of the Holocaust may have become, this atrocity was not dictated solely by considerations of profitability or military strategy.12

Histories of the Holocaust

The second section of Traverso’s book takes up arguments about how histories of the Holocaust have been constructed. The short chapter on the US academic Daniel Goldhagen, the author of the important 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, is a little too balanced. Traverso praises Goldhagen for showing that the Holocaust could not be understood by a functionalist approach alone and for stimulating a debate among German youth. Nevertheless, he ignores the impact outside the academy of Goldhagen’s central thesis—that “ordinary” Germans, as opposed to the Nazis, were responsible for the Holocaust.13 In Poland, for example, where the government has sought to downplay the role of Poles in the genocide, the new Warsaw Museum of Jewish History very much categorises the atrocities committed in Poland as “German” rather than “Nazi”. This allows Polish collaborators off the hook. Traverso argues that we should avoid the “no-holds-barred demolition” of Goldhagen’s thesis, but this is weak and Goldhagen should be critically dealt with.14

Taverso’s discussions of the work of Norman Finkelstein, Timothy Snyder and Peter Novick are more nuanced and have more merit than the chapter on Goldhagen. Although Traverso sees Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry as crude, he defends him against his detractors and calls the book “an opportunity for a debate on the politics of memory and on the public uses of history”.15 Against Snyder, Traverso takes a firm, polemical stance. He berates Synder for his spurious linking of the Nazi project with ecology—both, according to Snyder, are concerned with the allocation of natural resources. Traverso also attacks Snyder’s admiration of right-wing Zionist politicians such as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu. Snyder claims that these figures understood the importance of controlling scarce resources. Traverso argues that Snyder “preaches Zionist and neoconservative platitudes, obscuring more history than he uncovers”.16

Traverso also includes a chapter on the French filmmaker and writer Claude Lanzmann, the author of Shoah and a documentary of the same name. Traverso highlights the paradox between Lanzmann’s anti-colonialism and his strong Zionism, which “saw him shamefully deny the oppression of the Palestinians in the occupied territories”.17 The nine-hour film Shoah underlines his contradictory approach. Although his later films shine an important light on the scale of the catastrophe, his account has all Germans as Nazis, all Jews as victims and all bystanders as accomplices. This means that Lanzmann avoids the difficult area referred to by Primo Levi as the “grey zone” between outright opposition and outright collaboration, which haunted survivors of the Holocaust.18 Traverso points out that Lanzmann’s mindset let the Jewish councils that collaborated with the Nazis off the hook, although clearly we must also acknowledge that the choices they faced were complex and difficult. Zionism led Lansmann to believe that Israel is the only defence against antisemitism, and it is right that Traverso takes him to task for that.

Learning the lessons

The third section of the book, entitled “The Left and Antisemitism”, raises questions of how we might stop the rise of fascism today. Traverso rightly points to the political and theoretical weaknesses of the primary opponents of the Nazis, the Weimar Republic’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Communist Party (KPD). Both the left and Jewish community organisations in Germany thought that the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 would prove to be a transient moment. Notoriously, the response of the KPD to this grave event, attributed to party leader Ernst Thalmann, was, “After Hitler, our turn”. Two days after Hitler was appointed chancellor, the Centralverein, a Jewish leadership organization, argued that Jews should not panic. It claimed that “no one will dare to touch our constitutional rights” and called on its members to avoid anti-Nazi demonstrations.

From the early 1930s, Leon Trotsky and his small band of supporters made calls for a united front of working class organisations to hold back fascism. They went unheeded by the SPD and KPD. At times, these two parties seemed more suspicious of one another than of the supposedly transient National Socialists. From the late 1920s, the Communists denounced the Social Democrats as “social fascists” and thus no better than the Nazis. Indeed, according to the KPD, by hiding their true nature under the name of socialism, the SPD were perhaps even more duplicitous and dangerous than Hitler’s crew. In turn, the SPD believed that the KPD was an anti-democratic force, blindly enthralled to their masters in Moscow.

Traverso argues that a lack of understanding of antisemitism was the left’s main problem. This is a mistake. Of course, this was a problem, but there were greater obstacles to preventing the Nazi takeover. The most important of these was a failure to recognise what a Nazi dictatorship would mean for Germany’s powerful workers’ movement. Another stumbling block for the left was the rivers of bad blood between the Communists and the Social Democracts. These had flowed since the German Revolution of 1918-23 when the SPD collaborated with the far right to murder KPD activists such as Rosa Luxemburg. Moreover, both parties failed to break the hold of ideas that had their roots in the Marxism of pre-war Second International, which saw socialism as an objectively determined historical certainty rather than a merely potential outcome of historical ruptures and political battles. All these factors meant that the leading parties of the German working class were unwilling to engage in united activity against the Nazis. This tragedy is underlined by the fact that the combined vote of the SPD and the KPD was larger than the Nazis’ vote in November 1932 at the Weimar Republic’s last democratic election. The Social Democrats and Communists were deeply embedded in the factories and among the unemployed, and both had sizeable militias. Their failure to jointly challenge Hitler is a great tragedy of world history.

Traverso’s final chapter is called “The Debt: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising”. Traverso is a great admirer of the Jewish revolt in Nazi-occupied Warsaw in 1943. He sees it as one of the most heroic moments in the Holocaust.19 It is perhaps the greatest moment in Jewish, if not all, history. Moreover, it was the last great moment of “Yiddishland”, as Alain Brossart and Sylvia Klingberg describe the world of Eastern European Jewry that was destroyed by the Nazis.20 For this reason, Traverso refers to it as “the end of Jewish modernity” in an earlier book. The uprising is famously chronicled by Marek Edelman, a leader of the Jewish Fighting Organisation (ŻOB) resistance movement and an adherant of Bundism, the Jewish socialist current.21 His The Ghetto Fights records events from an eyewitness perspective.22 It was an uprising with no hope of success, and yet it had at its core a moral and ethical mission. As Traverso indicates, interestingly the leadership of ŻOB was a mix of Zionist and socialist organisations. They recognised that all Jews, regardless of their political outlook, would end up in Auschwitz unless a struggle was waged. Traverso puts the lessons of the uprising beautifully and makes a suggestion for what we must do today:

The ghetto fighters left us a universal message of humanism and hope… People do not revolt only when they have a chance of winning; they revolt because they cannot accept an insult to human dignity… Now it is up to us to put the therapeutic virtues of memory to work23.

We need to transform these words into action. Fascism and right-wing populism continue their rise across the world, borne aloft on the wings of racism. The task of the left is to build the largest possible united front of trade unionists, socialists, Jews, Muslims, Roma, black people, LGBT+ and others against them.

Henry Maitles is Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of the West of Scotland. He is the author of four books discussing values and education, the most recent being Understanding and Teaching Holocaust Education (Sage, 2018).


1 For a fuller discussion on this, see Callinicos, 2001.

2 Wiesel, 1993; Adorno, 1983.

3 Adorno, 1983, p34.

4 For a fuller discussion on this, see Finkelstein, 2000 pp41-49.

5 Traverso, 2019, p248.

6 Hoess, 2000, p207.

7 Levi, 1989, pp9-10.

8 Bauman, 1989.

9 Traverso, 1999.

10 Dawidowicz, 1986.

11 Hilberg, 1985, p735.

12 For a wider discussion on this area, see Callinicos, 2001.

13 Goldhagen, 1996.

14 Finkelstein, 2000; Maitles, 1997; Shandley, 1998.

15 Traverso, 2019, p147.

16 Traverso, 2019, p177.

17 Traverso, 2019, p179.

18 Levi, 1988.

19 Traverso, 2016.

20 Brossart and Klingberg, 2016.

21 The term “Bund” was an abbreviated name for the General Jewish Labour League in Lithuania, Poland and Russia.

22 Edelman, 1945.

23 Traverso, 2019, p267.


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